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"A Long, Troublesome, and Dangerous Passage" from England to India

10. Combat with a Portuguese Carrack



Naval Combat

Combat between two ships. From Wouter Schouten's 1676 book Ost-Indische Reyse.

On August 6th, off the coast of the Comoros Islands, the Charles encountered a hostile Portuguese carrack. Although the states of England and Portugal were not at war with each other in 1615, there was no guarantee that individual sailors or captains would abide by the orders of their respective monarchs. Based on the account that Terry gives us of this encounter, we even cannot be sure if Portuguese sailors were on the carrack! Over the course of the next three days, the Charles and the carrack clashed. The battle was clearly a horrifying experience for Terry to witness, as he dwells upon the grim realities of naval combat far more than the glory of victory:

Captain Joseph himself made the three first shot at them, all of which (the mark being so fair and near) hit them; this done, the bullets began to fly on both sides, our captain cheering his company, immediately ascended the half-deck, the place where commanders use to keep in those encounters, to shew their own gallantry and to encourage the company under their command; where he had not been the eighth part of an hour e're a great shot from the [Portuguese] carrack's quarter deprived him of life in the twinkling of an eye.. Certainly there is never a bullet flies, that carries not a commission with it to hit or miss, to kill or spare; the time, the place, and every circumstance besides of a man's dissolution, is fore-determined. That one dies in the field, another in his bed, one on the sea, another on the shore, one by sickness, another by violence, one in his own, another in a foreign nation, is fore-decreed in Heaven; the time of every man's change being set to a minute, which he must not pass.

After a restless night, Terry and the crew of the Charles prepared for another day of combat. However, the Portuguese carrack lay in wait along the coast of the island of Mohilia (one of the Comoros Islands) and the new commander of the Charles, Captain Pepwell, decided to wait to fight until the enemy carrack set off to sea. In the meantime, Terry and the crew lay to rest their previous commander, Captain Joseph:

And that afternoon we chested our late slain commander, putting some great shot with him into it, that he might presently sink, and without any ceremony of guns, &c. usual upon such occasions, because our enemy should take no notice, put him overboard against the island of Mohilia, where he made his own grave, as all dead bodies do, buried not in dust but water.

Finally, that night, the Portuguese carrack set sail. The Charles immediately chased her:

A little before night that present day [August 7th], the carrack departed again to sea; we all loosed our anchors, opened our sails, and followed.

Following an ominous red sunrise on August 8th, combat with the Portuguese carrack resumed. After much fighting, the Charles dealt a fatal blow to the carrack and it was forced to crash-land on the island of Gazidia (one of the Comoros Islands):

The day began to appear in a red mantle, which proved bloody unto many that beheld it… We continued alternis vicibus [alternating], one after the other, shooting at our adversary, as at a butt, and by three of the clock in the afternoon had shot down her main-mast by the board, her mizzen-masts, her fore-top-mast, and moreover had made such breaches in her thick sides, that her case seemed so desperate, as that she must either yield or perish… The poor distressed Portuguese, after they had left their ship, were most inhumanely used by the barbarous islanders, who spoiled them of all they brought on shore for their succour, some of them finding death in the place they chose to escape; and doubtless they had made havock of them all, had they not presently been relieved by two Arabian Junks (for so their small ill built ships are called) there in trade… I believe that of all warlike oppositions there are none that carry more horror in them than sea fights do, if the parties engaged be both very resolute, as very many who use the sea are, who will desperately run upon the mouth of a cannon, rush into the very jaws of death, before they have at all learned what it was to live… I want words to express the extreme horror that is to be observed in these sea fights, where fire like lightning darts into mens eyes, and the over-loud cracks of great ordnance like thunder roars in their ears, besides the noise made by muskets, drums, and fifes, with men hurrying up and down the ship, in a confused tumult, wrapt about in a thick cloud of suffocating smoak made by the powder.